Make a List

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is often sought out for his views on numerous subjects, and so we [at Parabola] asked him to speak with us about our theme of Thinking. Generous and gracious, he cleared time from his demanding schedule, not to answer but to challenge and to question editors and readers alike.

I’m a great believer in the positive role of thinking.

I am also very suspicious of thoughtless emotions, whether in interhuman relations or about higher subjects. There is the question of reliability.

As a rule, thinking is an orderly process, and therefore it is, up to a point, checkable. Emotions are not, and because they are not, there is always a question mark with every emotion. There are two ways of measuring an emotion. One is measuring how powerful it is. An emotion can be very mild, or overwhelming. This is something we can measure within ourselves: the power of it. But we don’t much measure the quality of an emotion. And the quality makes a big difference. I can hear a sequence of noises, and I can measure how loud they are, but I don’t have a way of measuring if they are beautiful or not.

I don’t know if it’s stressed enough that spiritual is a neutral term. I had some training in mathematics and I use it because it’s very helpful for thinking. The point is that there are negative numbers and positive numbers. Spirituality per se is just spirituality. It can be evil or it can be good. Measuring evil and good doesn’t depend on the strength of the emotion, but on the quality.

The process of thinking is in many ways an examining – examining emotions, examining many other things. So even when a person has a deep emotional life, thinking is always the way of measuring, checking, or dealing with things. If there are values involved, this measurement is at a most important stage. What did I hear and what was the quality of what I heard? A pillar of fire appears before me, and sings “Yankee Doodle.” So what was it?

I remember reading that one of Napoleon’s wives had the unusual ability of being able to flex a muscle and curl her ears at will-a beautiful thing. So what? Okay, so you can curl your ears. Or you can see the future. There are lots of things that we are doing every day that are as marvelous as that. Talking with each other is strange and marvelous.

Yes, how can we talk with each other? So we have this talent. It’s a great thing. But in itself it is just that. Being able to do things with my body, extraordinary things, or unusual things, it’s very interesting. But that’s where it stops.

It stops at the point of being interesting phenomena. Spiritual experiences per se happen in my mind. As such, some of them are delightful, some of them are awesome, but they are what they are. A person who is spiritually gifted is not very different from a person who is mathematically gifted. Or a person who is musically gifted.

What is the first function of thought?  The first function of thought is to do a certain amount of sorting-of differentiating between what is important, and what is just something. Thinking is a way of making order of all kinds of phenomena, emotions, happenings, experiences. Thinking is a process and that process has its own rules, but we cannot do it one hundred percent reliably because human beings cannot think without an emotional element. So our thinking has a danger of being biased. A human being cannot see things or understand things completely objectively. And in a way, if I can be objective about all sorts of things, that’s possibly a very bad mark. If I see a good thing or a bad thing, and I just note them as things, there is, perhaps, a lack of humanity in the process.

Thinking is, at least to a certain degree, something that we can direct at will. In that sense, the most important part of having a spiritual life is to form a decision that I want to go in this direction.

What is really good? What should be relevant for me? What is important? Perhaps truth is more important than having a position as the vice president of a company. There were times in which the notion of searching for God was an acceptable notion, one that people could very well understand as a way of life that is meaningful.

That doesn’t mean that everybody will have the same answers. When I look at people who are, so to say, “spiritually inclined,” some of them are people who have nothing, and for them it’s easy. I’m not good at getting money. I’m not good at getting a wife. I’m not good at getting a position. The only thing I may be good at is another way, so I can claim I am having high experiences.

But this also happens to people who have everything. They say, “Okay, I have this, and this, and this, and I’m not sure whether it is satisfactory. I have enough of these things, but they are not an end, and I’m searching for something that will be really meaningful.” Kipling wrote an interesting story set in India about a person who was very able. He was a prime minister of a state, and then at the age of sixty he said, “Enough,” and he became a wanderer. I have a friend who had the same kind of experience. He was an artist for years, and then he won an important international prize, and he stopped. He went in a totally different direction, far more spiritual. He’d achieved something, but he didn’t think that making another picture would be enough.

If you can take people and make them think, they are a little bit like freed slaves. Because a system doesn’t always need to put irons on the hands of slaves. You can enslave people in other ways that are sometimes as efficient as binding them by leg and foot. But let’s go further: this means there are new ways for human achievement, for human endeavor. And that means I have to direct myself in a different way, in a new way. And when I direct myself in that way, it has nothing to do with my feelings or emotion but with thinking about what is important, and how do I achieve it?

It is important to think in the right way. Sometimes people come with all kinds of questions and problems, and sometimes I tell a person, “Look, you have a point. I can give you one small piece of advice: write down the points for and against.”

I told a young man, “You want to find out what kind of profession you are going to follow. Okay, make a list of what is in any way compatible with you. Make a list. When you make this list, you can then write down if you are good at it, if you are not good at it, if it is boring.”

Now after you make such a list, it doesn’t lead you to a divinely inspired solution, but actually you have something that is meaningful.

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